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Living with Intermittent Infrastructures

In this essay, I share a version of living with intermittent infrastructures in southeast Louisiana, a place facing accelerated impacts of climate change. Interruptions to infrastructures are expected when hurricanes hit the region. However, maintaining and repairing these infrastructures are happening against the backdrop of increased intensity and frequency of storms. How can this case reframe how we understand infrastructure on shifting lands?

Preparing for the Storm [The inevitability of blackouts]

The people of southeast Louisiana are no strangers to hurricanes and the subsequent blackouts they bring. For residents, this is expected—it’s a question not of if but of when the lights will go out. The designated Atlantic hurricane season extends from June through November, with most storms occurring between August and October. In the weeks leading up to hurricane season, people find ways to prepare for potential storms. This can include stockpiling nonperishable food items, gathering flashlights and other tools, adjusting storm windows, buying extra fuel for generators, checking in on neighbors, and planning possible evacuation routes. Municipalities, nonprofits, and mutual aid groups also host local events to distribute resources and supplies. Then comes an anxious waiting. While forecasts can provide a general glimpse of the weather for the week ahead, where a hurricane will hit can only be ascertained a few days in advance of landfall.

In the case of Hurricane Ida, the projected path and intensity of the storm was determined on August 26 when the tropical depression organized into a tropical storm near the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea. That same day, Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana issued a state of emergency, followed soon after by a federal emergency declaration by President Joe Biden. The next day, several parish governments across southeast Louisiana began to call for evacuation. Terrebonne, Lafourche, and Plaquemines parishes, southeastern parishes that border the Gulf of Mexico, all issued mandatory evacuations, while a voluntary evacuation was in place in New Orleans and the surrounding metropolitan area. For those that were evacuating, the interstate roads leading out of the area were heavy with traffic as people headed east, west, and north. For those staying, people gathered last minute supplies before bunkering down as the first rain showers started coming down. On Sunday, August 29 at 11:55 pm, Hurricane Ida landed in Port Fourchon, a major seaport for the petrochemical industry, 17 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005.

Across southeastern Louisiana, the lights started to go out as the 150 mile per hour winds began to knock over utility poles and power lines. In Terrebonne Parish, a local electric utility company had preemptively made a Facebook post announcing that they would not be responding to any outage calls due to safety concerns for the crews. The message went on to say, “If Hurricane Ida continues to take its current path and the eye passes directly over Houma as a strong Category 3 or 4 storm as is predicted this could have devastating consequences to our service area resulting in very prolonged outages.” As the storm moved further inland, it began to weaken, finally dropping below hurricane strength early on August 30th.

Over the course of about 16 hours, extreme damage to the electricity and communications infrastructure had been done. Hurricane Ida left residents not only in the dark, but in the sweltering late-summer heat without relief. In the wake of the storm, tens of thousands of utility poles had been damaged or broken, bringing down most of the lines that transfer power and data across most of the southeastern portion of the state. While cell signal was available for a few days, the backup generators at cell towers soon ran low on fuel. Without the roads cleared, the service crews were unable to refuel these generators. Hurricane Ida also coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during which time, many people had come to rely on the Internet for distanced education and employment. As a result, the power outage caused class cancellations and work closures across the state. This infrastructural disruption also created additional frustration for residents assessing and documenting damage after the storm. For agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to complete many of their forms and processes involves uploading documents and photos to their website.

In recent years, hurricanes have increased in both frequency and intensity due to climate change. Greenhouse gasses cause warming ocean waters, which in turn create conditions for storms with higher wind speeds and increased precipitation. In 2020, the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record saw several category 3 and 4 storms across the region. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA) predicts that the proportion of hurricanes that reach Category 4 or 5 levels is projected to increase over the course of the next century (source). Much of the grid in southeast Louisiana was built to previous standards to brace winds at 110 miles per hour, equivalent to a Category 2 storm (source). With stronger storms comes increased damage in which entire networks are incapacitated and people are left in the dark for weeks. 17 of the 28 reported deaths in Louisiana related to Hurricane Ida were caused by generator and power-outage related issues (source). Louisiana consistently ranks as having one of the least reliable electricity grids in the country, with residents spending an average of 80 hours a year without power (source).

While intermittent outages are a seasonal expectation for south Louisianans, the combination of aging infrastructures and increased storms is creating unprecedented situations. People expect the infrastructures to be irregular during and following a storm—the power will go out, the roads will be flooded for some time—but it is becoming harder, and more dangerous, to deal with the increasingly extended outages and longer and longer recovery times.

Hurricane Mode [The extension of repair and recovery from blackouts]
“We’re still in hurricane mode.”

This declaration came from the general manager of an electric cooperative in Terrebonne Parish, one of the areas where Hurricane Ida had caused some of the most severe damage. He sat in a trailer that had become his workspace and living quarters after Hurricane Ida damaged both his office and home in August 2021. It was now mid-June 2022, two weeks into the next hurricane season, and he was still waiting on repairs for both. Through the window, a newly poured concrete pad could be seen where the old office once stood, surrounded by other trailers out of which the employees worked. The manager explained that they were waiting on some modular office units to be delivered in a few days.

New utility poles (left) and damaged utility poles (right), Falgout Canal Road, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, July 2022

Some of the staff had been in the office on the day that Hurricane Ida hit. As employees at a utility, they provide essential services and are therefore exempted from mandatory evacuations. Nonetheless, given the severity of the forecast, many of their family members and coworkers with young children had departed to evade the hurricane’s path. When the lights went out mid morning, the backup generator had kicked on. However, by the late afternoon, the strong winds had begun to peel the aluminum roof off the top of the building, letting water spill in. One of the employees immediately went through the building and piled the computer hard drives on a table as water began to seep under the doorways. They recorded a video showing them moving from room to room, wearing flip flops in ankle-deep water, aiming a flashlight in the darkened offices to salvage possessions their colleagues might want to save.

After the storm passed, the utility workers immediately began their plan to restore electricity. In the months leading up to the hurricane, the utility had updated their storm preparedness procedures. Several recent storms had just barely missed their service territory and the manager wanted to be ready. Part of their preparation included getting permission from an unused shipyard to house the hundreds of temporary workers that would come in to assist with recovery. Even before the hurricane had hit Port Fourchon, subcontractors and crews from across the state and country were on standby at the request of the utility company. As soon as the roads cleared, the shipyard was transformed into a “tent city” to house the hundreds of workers.

In the first few days of the tent city, the workers settled in a routine. By daybreak, people would be lined up in their trucks ready to receive their assignments for the day. The first tasks included removing debris from the road, including downed poles and lines. The next step was to install new poles. Based on an assessment by the utility company, over 4000 utility poles needed to be replaced. For areas with stable ground, this task is straightforward; the poles are brought in a truck or trailer, a hole is bored, and the pole is driven into the ground. For those that need to be replaced on more swampy grounds, the poles must be loaded onto an amphibious vehicle or boat, sometimes moving at a pace of two miles per hour. Working from the vehicles or sometimes in chest-high muck, the workers submerge two poles per point. One pole acts as the piling, being sunk into the swamp. As one worker described, they shove the pole “as far as it can go,” often up to thirty feet down, with just a few feet remaining above the surface. The second pole is placed directly next to the submerged one at a shallower depth. The two poles are then lashed together via screws and a metal brace. When the poles in a section are finally installed, the line workers come through to mount the electrical lines to the poles—a choreographed procedure that ensures proper tension across the points of contact.

At nighttime, the line workers would park their vehicles in neat rows. This orientation allowed a fuel truck to come through and refuel each truck so they would be ready in the morning. By the end of September 2021, most of the power had been restored in the service area, almost a month after Hurricane Ida had hit. Tent city was packed up and the contractors and crews returned.

However the aftermath of the storm still lingers on. In September 2022, while working on installing a new line to an existing network, a line worker noted the incorrect placement of a crossbar on a distribution pole. They referred to it as “storm work,” work that was probably done by out-of-state contractors, who are sometimes less experienced and may have less investment in ensuring proper installation. Since this error did not prevent the overall network from working, it was also not prioritized as a repair; other more urgent work such as electrifying new developments and hardening the system for future storms took precedence. Moreover, as the line worker speculated, regardless of whether this crossbar is corrected or not, the pole will probably come down in the next big storm.

While much of Louisiana’s infrastructure is back up and running, it is not necessarily all in use. For some residents in more rural parts of Terrebonne Parish, their homes are still in disrepair from Hurricane Ida. In early December 2022, a resident was still waiting on their home insurance to come through for their house that was made unlivable by the storm. While they waited, they were living with their grown children almost an hour away. On the weekends, they would come down to do some work around their property but had not reconnected service yet since they were still waiting on insurance payouts. As one telecommunications worker said about people not returning to their homes after a storm, “What’s a network without any users?”

The length of the hurricanes are short compared to the length of recovery. In under 24 hours, whole infrastructures can be obliterated. Not only does recovery require skilled work, it also requires financing to pay for the labor and equipment. With work dragging on from one hurricane season to the next, it’s unclear if these infrastructures are ever being fully and correctly repaired.

Shifting Landscapes [Dynamic infrastructures for dynamic landscapes]

On a hot July weekend, a group gathered in New Orleans to build solar generators. Over the course of two days, attendees worked in teams to assemble generators that would be distributed to designated hurricane recovery hubs across the region. The workshop was run by a nonprofit with a mission to make disaster recovery more sustainable. Many attendees were members of local mutual aid groups and community organizations. Frustration from the lack of adequate state and federal responses to hurricanes and other issues motivated people to build local networks of support. During the workshop, participants received worksheets to calculate how much load the generator could take on. One community organizer noted how they needed to keep a mini fridge on to keep medications cool for neighbors, while another person said they wanted to create a charging station for people’s phones. All these discussions were informed by their experiences waiting for the electricity to come back on not just after Ida, but also the many other storms they had endured over the previous years. These generators provided one tangible form of relief in a time of increasing blackouts. The solar-powered nature of the generators means that community members do not need to worry about stocking up on additional fuel, an often scarce resource post-storm. Additionally, unlike gas-powered generators, these generators do not produce carbon monoxide which can be deadly at high concentrations. More broadly, it marks an important deviation from the area’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Tide Water Road, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, February 2022

In 1901, the first oil well was successfully struck in Louisiana. Under the rich sediment of the Mississippi River Delta lie deposits of crude oil and natural gas reserves. State policymakers, eager to transform the state’s slow economy, provided generous tax incentives for gas and oil companies. After the abolishment of slavery during the American Civil War, Louisiana, like many southern states, faced a period of stagnant economic development due to the previous reliance on enslaved African and Indigenous people for cheap labor. To this day, the oil and gas industry still plays a dominant role in the state’s economy. According to one report, the oil and gas industries contribute over a quarter of Louisiana’s gross domestic product (source). However, these oil companies that have revived the state’s economy have also been deeply detrimental to the health of the people and environment. Residents living near petrochemical facilities face greater risks of negative health outcomes from exposure to toxic pollutants (source). Likewise, canals cut into the wetlands to transport drilling equipment accelerate coastal land erosion. Furthermore, the excess emissions produced by the oil and gas industry contribute to warming ocean waters, which in turn perpetuate the very storms that increasingly devastate the region.

This is not an isolated story; the land in south Louisiana is also in constant flux. Over the course of the past eight thousand years, the Mississippi River has adjusted and readjusted course numerous times, depositing silt and other matter to form the interconnected series of marshes and swamps that are linked by the slow-moving bayous. Seasonal flooding of the Delta replenishes the land that is washed away by storms. The Choctaw, Atakapa-Ishak, Chitimacha, Biloxi, Houma, and other Indigenous peoples lived with the changing environments of their homelands. For example, the Houma developed seasonal practices for shrimping and fishing which they continue to this day. However, to protect their vulnerable settlements from water, colonial governments built levees along the Mississippi River. In the 1700s, the French and later Spanish colonial powers mandated the construction of levees to shield lucrative sugar plantations from storm surges and flooding (source). Although these levees enabled settlements to grow into the places people live across the region today, they also impeded the supply of river sediment necessary for land renewal. While the Mississippi River is currently artificially contained, the dynamic landscape is at a standstill.

Preparing for the future of southeast Louisiana is a difficult task. It is inevitable the lights will go out once again. The road to recovery will be long and costly. Is this the consequence of trying to build rigid infrastructures on land that seeks to move? The river will shift, the storms will roll through, and the land will change. The way that we currently envision infrastructures runs counter to the dynamic landscapes they rest on. Rather than insisting on stable and permanent infrastructures, can we adapt systems to their local environment?